Later this year Randolph O’Neill Vineyard will release its first Cabernet Franc under its own label. A semi-dry and dry Riesling are already available, along with a dry rosé. Owner Kelley O’Neill is a one-man operation: he is both the vineyard manager and winemaker and also manages the sale of his wine and his grapes. He has an acre of Riesling and an acre of Cab Franc planted on the west side of Cayuga Lake in Ovid, immediately north of the Hosmer vineyards and south of Cayuga Ridge Estate Vineyard and the Thirsty Owl Wine Company.
O’Neill planted his grapes in 2005 and began selling the fruit three years later. Most of his grapes became wine under the imprint of other wineries, but Paul Brock of Silver Thread Vineyard made “single vineyard” Rieslings and bottled a Randolph O’Neill Riesling between vintage years 2011 and 2014.
“I just finished pruning,” said O’Neill at the end of March. “It took five weeks. Now I’m tying the new growth to the trellises.” He said in May and June “all hell breaks loose” and he will have to be doing three or four tasks at once in order to keep up with the early growth of his vines.
The mild winter left him with 10 to 10 percent bud mortality, which he said is about “par for the course.” April and early May are a “weird time of year,” he said, because of the possibility of a frost and the large swings in temperature that can occur.
O’Neill and his wife Angela arrived in the Finger Lakes from Georgia in 1997. At the time he knew very little about grape growing or winemaking, but had the dream of founding a winery. In the years since he has worked for Lamoreaux Landing Wine Cellars on Seneca Lake and at Northside Wine & Spirits in Ithaca.
“I worked in the Lamoreaux Landing vineyards for three years,” O’Neill said, “and then I showed interest in the cellar. When their winemaker left I was hired with the title of ‘cellarmaster.’” He worked alongside winemaker Rob Thomas, the founder of Shalestone Winery, and over three and a half years learned the craft of winemaking. Over the years he has also taken advantage of a number of workshops and courses offered by Cooperative Extension and Cornell.
The O’Neills looked for many years for land for their vineyard. “The biggest considerations were that it be near a lake, sloped, and affordable,” said the winemaker. “We had the soil tested after we bought it and it was good, but there were vineyards all around it, so it wasn’t a surprise.”
Angela O’Neill helped to plant the vines and she picks grapes in the fall, but it is her job as a financial consultant has allowed her husband to devote all his time to getting their winery going. The name of the businees is a combination of her family name and his.
O’Neill has focused on Riesling and Cabernet Franc grapes because he saw that these varieties did well in the Finger Lakes. “This is a better area for certain grapes than some people give it credit for,” he said of the lingering doubts about growing vinifera grapes in such a cold climate. “Cabernet Franc produces consistently good dry reds.”
Randolph O’Neill Vineyard will grow by a little, but not much. “The original plan has been scaled back,” O’Neill said. “We will probably plant another acre in another year or two.” In his first vintage year—2014—he is releasing 50 each cases of semi-dry Riesling, dry Riesling, and Cabernet Franc, plus 25 cases of dry rosé (made with Cabernet Franc grapes) from the 2015 harvest.
Right now he has the equivalent of 100 cases of Riesling in his tanks and 100 cases of Cab Franc aging in barrels. These are 2015 grapes. He is about to bottle his 2014 Cab Franc; it has been in the barrels for a year.
“We will build up to 600 to 700 cases per year, once we are fully up and running,” he said, “and we add the other acre.” He never wants to make more 1,000 cases per year. No other winery in the Finger Lakes—that O’Neill is aware of—is following this small-scale model. The closest equivalent is Shalestone, which has only about 10 acres of grapes, but like O’Neill uses only their own fruit.
He is now making wine in a 16-by-30-foot room that he added onto to his house. “We will build a tasting room,” he said. “I am planning for it to be a mostly underground facility about twice the size of what I have now. I’m not thinking of dividing it up, but more of using it as a multi-purpose space.” This isn’t unprecedented; Hermann J. Weimer Vineyard on Seneca Lake has a tasting room in a room of tanks.
Right now he doesn’t have any regular hours. “I tell people, ‘Give me a call and I’ll meet you there,’” he said. “I don’t like to call it an appointment because that sounds a little intimidating.” He is working on a website, which he said should be operational in about a month. Right now all his sales are wholesale and Randolph O’Neill wine is available at Northside Wine & Spirits, Red Feet Wine Market & Spirit Provisions, and Triphammer Wine & Spirits. §